As far as genres go, Westerns are an acquired taste – one that I have yet to truly develop. Actually, it’s a taste I typically avoid even trying to acquire. But “The Long Knives are Crying” by Joseph M. Marshall III manages to transcend the traditional Western classification because it’s more than just a Western. It’s also a historical novel, part of a series of books known as the Lakota Westerns. “The Long Knives are Crying” is the second book in a series of three.
It is always difficult to begin in the middle of a series – if the author is not careful, the reader can quickly get lost and spend most of the book trying to really get into the story, should they bother to finish it at all. Luckily for readers, Marshall has written “The Long Knives are Crying” in such a way that the reader can still appreciate the story as a singular novel – although, without having read the preceding and following books, it’s impossible to know how much could have been gained by reading the series in its intended order.
However, Marshall packs the beginning pages of this book with reference material, which may be part of the reason the reader can just start this book without worrying about the first one (set 10 years earlier than “The Long Knives are Crying”). There are maps, calendars and a cast of characters that include a description of their role in the novel. There are four pages of characters, with so many different personalities and locations of battles it’s helpful to have these reference points because it can get difficult to keep track of what’s going on. However, it’s also easy to forget the references are available.
But the title stays with you. The title of the book comes from a Lakota victory song, which repeats the phrase “They went on a charge, the Long Knives are crying!” This song begins the book, complete with a brief description of the song’s origin. It is more helpful than the other reference points because it’s referred to in the story so consistently that it becomes unforgettable.
Marshall provides lots of clues about what the reader should be remembering throughout this book. Each chapter title is a line that has a special significance within that chapter. The reader can’t skim over this – even if it’s seemingly unimportant at the beginning of the chapter, reading those words again but now in context triggers a realization that this event is important.
The narration is also an important component to this novel. The story is a memory. The reader is introduced to the main character, John Richard Cloud, in the prologue. Although memory-based stories are common, Marshall has a unique writing style. This tale is told from a third-person perspective. It is Cloud’s tale, but Cloud is just another character – it is not his narration. It’s an interesting choice, one that could leave the reader feeling disconnected.
I even forgot that Cloud was the main character until I reached the epilogue. Yet I was always drawn to his character. I was most engaged in the sections that focused on his experiences and his family. Cloud is an important person and serves as a constant presence in the story. He never gets lost, despite all of the characters that are introduced throughout the novel.
However, it is more impressive that his tale is memorable because it is fragmented. There is John Richard and there is Cloud. John Richard spends the prologue mentally preparing himself to tell the story of his past to his children and his grandson. Cloud spends the story fighting for his family – both immediate and the Lakota family as a whole. This fragmented tale of John Richard’s life compared to Cloud’s memories takes his family and the reader on a journey, one that leads them to a better understanding of John Richard Cloud’s life.
Most of the book focuses on physical battles but this separation of personality is what makes this Western interesting. The true struggle is internal. Cloud’s life is very different from John Richard’s. There is no successful merging of a Lakota into a white lifestyle. This disassociation has the potential to startle the reader and make them question what it means to truly win a battle. And, possibly, get them to pick up the third book in the Lakota Westerns series.